Dear Midnight

Dark nights of the soul—midnights—offer graces and blessings beyond our most radical imaginings.

Rain chased us into the house. We just did escape her.

Then she did her saturation dance on our greening yard, our back deck, our roof—all through the night. 

I know this because I stayed up past midnight listening to her. And thinking. 

An article in Politico on Friday lured readers with this title—“Coronavirus Will Change the World Permanently: Here’s How.” What the writers predict both intrigues and troubles. And I think they are right. This moment in time is changing all future moments in ways large and small that we cannot even imagine yet. 

We humans have always been more fragile than many of us realize or acknowledge as we go about our daily routines. Some of us know because of our own stories that life is a bittersweet mixture of wild wonders and wilderness wanderings, of joyous grace and jarring lament. Even so, we still don’t always wash our dishes, do our jobs, care for our children or do a whole assortment of other activities with this awareness front and center in our consciousness. 

Now, as a global human community, we are encountering with every sud that baptizes our hands and with each of our daily breaths just how uncertain life is. We are experiencing a global “dark night of the soul.”

And yet—dark nights of the soul—midnights—also offer graces and blessings beyond our most radical imaginings.

Some people in our communities have beheld and embodied these graces and blessings all along through their everyday days as they have lived with chronic illnesses or life-denying dangers in their communities or other persistent uncertainties in their lives. These people have already shown us how to embrace aliveness in the face of threats to human well-being and even human existence. We can look to them for wisdom and hope. They are too often unheard and unseen heroes and sages.

Yes, COVID-19 is changing us. Or perhaps it is awakening us to who and what we already were and are.

My prayer is that we say “yes” with courage to shaping what happens toward the love and grace of God. A former student of mine, Jesse Sorrell, is now a hospital chaplain. He shared powerful insights in a recent Facebook post:

Shift calls for response. Creation responds to decreation. Art arises from grief. What can you create right now?

Jesse Sorrell

Thank you, Jesse, for this reminder of the creativity that nests even within uncertainty and grief.

This moment in history is changing all future moments. Hmm…but doesn’t every moment in some way shape all future moments? What life-giving change can we live right now?

My poem is addressed to Midnight and wonders what we as a human community might learn in this time of uncertainty and scatteredness.

Dear Midnight,

Who do you talk to
when the wrens and robins
go quiet in a storm?
You know, when lightning
strikes every city in every land 
and ignites down deep darkness?

The tiny terrier and I
cock our heads–
She growls down deep,
suspicious at not hearing
electricity scurry
through the house.

Rain tiptoes toward us
then chases us home,
silken hair flying out behind her.
She slips inside the house as the
door slams with a sonic boom
and a splinter of light–

Silence sidles in too,
scampers off into corners
and down deep into crevices
as we all peer out the window
at a sky homesick for stars.

Dear Midnight,

Can you tell us what it all means?
You, who wander fields and forests
seeking the fierce feeble embers
of once-fiery mornings–

The tiny terrier and I
cock our heads–
and in the dripping
down deep darkness
a train whistle melts 
into the rain-slick trees 
while a beatific barn owl
queries the night. 

Wilderness Wanderings and Wonderings

I feel in the marrow of my liturgical theologian’s bones an acute awareness that the end of quarantine will not, even must not, mean “getting back to normal.”

Quarantine.

The word has surged into our everyday parlance. What are its origins? And what can we learn from those origins about our use of the word today?

“Quarantine” is from the Italian “quadrants giorni” and means, literally, “space of forty days.”

The number 40 and spaces of forty days hold depths of meaning in many religious traditions. For example, Scripture tells us that the Israelites wandered in the wilderness for 40 years, and that Jesus fasted for 40 days in the Judean desert. The Christian liturgical season of Lent encourages 40 days of reflection leading up to Easter. The New Testament book of Acts marks a period of 40 days between the resurrection and ascension of Jesus.

My wondering for today is this: perhaps “quarantine” in these COVID-19 crisis days, as worrisome and even frightening as the reality is for so many of us, can hold unanticipated (if unsought) spiritual meanings and awakenings.

One reality has become clear. We have entered into a time of unwanted sabbath from our usual way of doing things, and that is causing anxiety, uncertainty, and even danger for some people in our communities. Also, unlike the liturgical season of Lent, we don’t know when this particular 40 days will end.

Some Jewish scholars say that the biblical concept of “40 days and 40 nights” actually means “a really long time.” Uncertainties like those we are facing today can make each day seem like “a really long time.”

I dare not suggest what spiritual meanings “quarantine” may hold for any person or community. What I seek for myself is a mustard seed of wisdom for life and faith that might take root during this imposed Sabbath “space of 40 days.”

In the meanwhile, my prayer is that we seek ways to be present for each other even in the midst of isolation, and my hope is rooted in the wonders of a Gospel story that promises resurrection and new life when the sun sets not only on the last of the 40 days but on each and every day in between.

Of course, even as I write these words, I feel in the marrow of my liturgical theologian’s bones an acute awareness that the end of quarantine will not, even must not, mean “getting back to normal.” Just as the Christian resurrection story meant nothing about humanity or even creation was ever again the same, so, too, with this historic moment. We cannot get back to normal because normal was not and is not life-giving or hope-sustaining for so many people.

We need transformation.

We need resurrection.

I pray that it may be so.

Daffodil Prayers

What do we do when chaos and crisis disrupt some of our most familiar and stress-settling life rituals?

Everyday rituals and rhythms anchor our lives.

So what do we do when chaos and crisis disrupt some of our most familiar and stress-settling life rituals?

Many of my colleagues–liturgical theologians and practitioners and religious leaders–are asking this question as COVID-19 ravages our communities. Is it possible that in my Christian community, we may find ourselves planning virtual Palm Sunday and Easter services? Other religious communities are facing their own versions liturgical and ritual disruption. How can we stay connected–in the marrow of our bones, if you will–while keeping the recommended social distance to protect the health of all of us?

I am impressed and intrigued by the creative and courageous efforts leaders are making to livestream worship and prayer services. I am also struck by how quickly schools, families, businesses, and others have begun to fashion new rituals of connecting, learning, working, and even playing that can serve as anchors–even if they are temporary–for people tossed about in the stormy waters of this historic moment.

We humans are a resilient bunch and can and do find ways to care for one another even from a physical distance. And I have a feeling that when we look back on these strange days, we will experience a deep satisfaction in our determination to be community to and with one another. (And those of us who are live streaming novices may experience more than a few chuckles as we remember our awkward Facebook fits and starts!)

For now, I continue to seek moments of everyday sacramentality in my own backyard–those moments when I become aware of God’s presence in daily patterns of work and rest and even in painful rituals of waiting and wondering.

I am also keeping in prayer and in mind those who are made even more vulnerable by this crisis than they already were to hunger, isolation, and violence.

I first drafted the following poem awhile ago and felt a prompting to revise it this week. This spring’s daffodils have reminded me anew of the promises and presence of God we encounter in creation’s rhythms. Perhaps as we journey through this present wilderness, we can offer up our prayers as the daffodils do, seeking each day to renew our faith in God’s grace and peace.

daffodil prayers

“Dip your aching toes
in cool waters,”
said Summer to the
wilderness
wandering
woman.

“Tease your tastebuds
with blackberries. Lay
your weary body down
on gentle meadow
grass. Breathe in the
soft sweetness of coral
honeysuckle where
hummingbirds drink
and dance.”

“Blush with pride,”
said Autumn
to the old maple tree.

“You earned it. You
shaded the little girl who
held summer stars
in her eyes
while she
sat beneath your branches
and read
and read
and read
once upon a times into
dreams into
fierce hopes for the future.”

“Bend toward hope
when icy winds blow,”
said Winter
to the fragile-seeming ones.

“Bend, but don’t break.
You are stronger than you know.
You are resilient.
You are enough.”

“To push your shoulders
up, up, up,”
said Spring.

“Up through still-cold
greening sod to
fragrance the dawn
with daffodil prayers.

Sacred Scatteredness

Living by faith in such a time as this is perhaps more a radical exercise in lavish broadcast sowing than in precise and planned row by row planting.

Listen! A sower went out to sow.

Matthew 13:3b

As this broken bread was scattered upon the mountains and being gathered together became one, so may your Church be gathered together from the ends of the earth into your kingdom . . . 

from The Didache, First Century, CE

I decided to plant radish and lettuce seeds this week. Nothing out of the ordinary about that for me. Sheila saved seeds from last year and ‘tis the season. What makes this ordinary activity extraordinary this spring is the backdrop scenery of spiraling graphs and avalanching news reports and stumbling spirits as COVID-19 raids our individual, communal, and global lives. 

Often during crises, a sanctuary for troubled hearts is an actual church sanctuary. Many people in my Christian tradition as well as in other spiritual traditions find solace in gathering together in person to pray, worship, sing, laugh, and lament. We experience strength in numbers, hope in the embodied knowing that we are all in this together—

except the embodied knowing–meeting together in physical church buildings
–is not a safe option for everyone when a virus like COVID-19 is on the loose in our midst. 

So we are scattered. Sunday sanctuaries are empty. Many preachers are preaching to empty pews or peering as they pray through digital looking glasses to connect with their communities. 

I celebrate the persistent creativity of so many pastoral leaders who sought on Sunday to offer a hopeful word through social media resources. I am also aware of how isolated and even afraid some people feel as public health leaders urge us to flatten the Covid-19 curve through social distancing. (Even these terms are novel to our everyday vocabularies.) 

We are scattered. 

Seeing this sentence on a friend’s Facebook feed on Sunday sparked a memory for me. In 2011, then Dean Gail R. O’Day spoke to graduating Wake Forest University Master of Divinity students about sowing seeds. She based her remarks on The Parable of the Sower in Matthew 13. The image she lifted out from this ancient story has stayed with me:

A farmer, or an urban or suburban gardener, fills a bucket with seeds, reaches into the bucket and grabs a handful of seeds, and then scatters those seeds broadly and widely across the terrain. 

from Gail R. O’Day’s remarks at the Wake Forest University School of Divinity diploma ceremony, May 2011.

That commencement day, Dr. O’Day focused not on the soil in the parable (as so many interpreters do) but instead emphasized the radical generosity in the sower’s actions of broadcast sowing.

Jesus calls disciples to imagine the kingdom of God as  a landscape planted by a lavish, generous sower—who is unstinting in her broadcast sowing of seeds that may grow to new life.  The kingdom of God is shaped first by the unrelenting determination to sow seeds of new life . . . 

“Ministry,” Dr. O’Day said, “is the ultimate exercise in broadcast sowing.” The ministry we all have to offer is “to reach down into the store of gifts that we have received. . . and throw seeds of hope and possibility out into the world where they can grow to new life for all.”

We are scattered because of an unexpected virus. But we are not alone. We are connected, interwoven as a human community in ways we perhaps never before realized or imagined. What if there are equally unexpected possibilities sown into these days. What if our lives–our persistent faith and kindness during these days–are God’s seeds, God’s hope and grace, being broadcast across diverse media throughout our towns and cities.

I am praying in these uncertain days for those in our communities most vulnerable to the virus. Economic inequities and other vulnerabilities become even more accentuated in times like these. I pray, too, that God will give me the wisdom to look for and embody in my actions what Dr. O’Day called “the joyous surprise of an unexpected glimpse of the kingdom of God” during these days of scattered sacredness. 

Living by faith in such a time as this is perhaps more a radical exercise in lavish broadcast sowing than in precise and planned row by row planting. Maybe I will forego my usual radish and snow pea plumb lines and broadcast some seeds this spring. And as I do so, I will offer up to prayers for communal and global recovery and healing. 

Beneath Our Feet; In Our Hands

Jack Frost is curled up,
Napping in my bones.
Backyard grass crunches,
Frozen beneath my feet.
Summer sunflowers hibernate,
Silent in my heart.

Could it be—
When I hold this dried out husk
Springtime rests on wintertide fingertips?
Infinitesimal harbinger of arugula and radishes;
Holder of stories–fields plowed,
Dirt collected under ungloved fingernails.
Death—in autumn–
Birth–in spring–
When tender-strong seedlings
Unfurl from soil-stained shells,
And push up through the earth
Hungry for the sun—

Dirt weeps sometimes too,
And calls to us: We are stronger than we imagine.
Justice—in wilderness places—
Freedom—in a kernel—
An orchard redeemed—blossoming
Sweet succulent promises of life overflowing.

So we take our shoes off to
Absorb holy ground nutrients
Beneath our feet.
And we water with salt-seasoned tears
This garden we hold in our hand.

Advent Porch Light

Turn on a porch light and welcome somebody home.

Where is the porch light?
We long for its steady promise
to appear somewhere out there
as we journey wintry roads.

Longing for light, we wander.

Someone has lit a lamp.
An obligato flame dances,
comforts aching eyes,
choreographs bone-tired feet.

Seeing the light, we follow.

The mountain house keeps vigil,
Watches through the night.
Waits up for heart-weary travelers
to find their way home.

Sharing the light, we wonder.

Come, let us walk in the light of the Lord.

Isaiah offers our first image for Advent this year (see Isaiah 2:1-5):

2The word that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem. 2In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it. 3Many peoples shall come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob. . .[C]ome let us walk in the light of the Lord.”

Isaiah 2

In the prophet’s vision, we see a mountain in the distance and crowds of people streaming toward a house on the mountain. A lush garden surrounds the house (at least as I imagine it). The garden has been cultivated by swords and spears that have been refashioned into plowshares and ruining hooks.

What does this mountain house image mean for the 2019 Advent season?

I am always glad when I come home after dark and Sheila has turned on the porch light. When I drive up and the light is on, I know that someone is waiting for me. Watching for me. When I drive up and the porch light is on, I know I am home.

I hope this year’s Advent waiting includes a porch light liturgy for those whose hearts and bodies ache for home. What do I mean by this? I hear a double call to action in Isaiah. We are called to keep seeking home—God’s home where the walls are built of justice, love, and peace. We cannot settle down and abide anything less than this. We are also called to keep vigil. We are called to watch through the night for homesick travelers who need for-now dwelling places.

We are approaching the winter solstice—the longest night of the year. People in our lives—people in our world—are bone-tired from wandering uncertain roads. One part of our Advent liturgy—of our work as God’s people—may just be to turn on a porch light and welcome somebody home.

Going Home, Home

God calls us to come home to our most authentic selves and then to be home for others who are seeking.

Photo by Sheila Hunter

My friend told me this story.

She was hiking down into the Grand Canyon on a rather warm day. A family passed by her going the opposite direction–out of the Canyon.

My friend overheard the young girl in the family lament to her mother:

“Mom, I want to go home.”

Her mom answered. “We will be home soon. When we get to the top–just up there–we will go back to our hotel and eat and rest.”

The girl’s response?

“No, Mom. I don’t want to go to the hotel. I want to go home-home.”

Being or finding or going home is difficult and painful for many people. This is the case for all sorts of reasons.

  • Consider the woman who moved for a job or a relationship and is struggling to get connected to a new community;
  • Or the teenager who ran away from a house that was never really home.
  • What about the family that escaped across a border of some kind and now can neither go back not see a way to go forward?
  • What about those people who can’t seem to feel at home in their own lives or even their own bodies?
Longing for home

Strangers in a strange land. Wandering. Seeking. So many people in our world today, at some time in their lives, long for home, even if they are not sure what home means for them.

For some of these people, faith communities become home. Or faith communities become home-like staying places, in-the-meanwhile dwelling places, for people whose lives are on the way to—well to many, often unknown, somewheres.

Or faith communities perhaps can become a for-now home. I long for this to be so.

“Not going home”

An unexpected image of “home”–along with the refrain of “not going home”–has gone viral on my Facebook feed this week. People who support women who preach have found in the phrase, “not going home,” a prophetic digital way to respond to and resist evangelical leader John MacArthur’s recent statement telling evangelist Beth Moore to “go home.”

“Home” also stands out to me in this week’s lectionary text, Luke 18:9-14. At the end of this parable that features a tax collector and a Pharisee, the tax collector goes”down to his home justified.” Read other insights about this parable in yesterday’s post and see the full text of the parable at the bottom of this post.

These two accounts–the ancient parable and the trending Facebook post–are coinciding or colliding or perhaps colluding this week to stir unexpected thoughts for me about “home.”

What I am considering as a result of this collusion is this:

What new and life-giving theological possibilities for our times can we discover in images of “home” and “going home”?

At home in the role of wanderer

In the parable, the tax collector goes home from the temple “justified.” Having sought God in humility–in deep recognition of his humanness–he is grounded anew in God’s care and mercy for him. The tax collector goes home with a new sense of belonging within God’s love and grace. He may still be regarded in contempt by those who deem themselves more righteous than they think he is, but he can dwell in his own life knowing that he is a beloved child of God. He can go home justified.

And yet, even that profound image of going home contains a bittersweet reality. “Home” for people of faith is, in large measure, a life of seeking and wandering and wondering.

What does that mean?

Poet Denise Levertov writes of being “too much at home in the role of wanderer.”

Perhaps faith calls us to be at home, if you will, in the role of wanderer. Restless for justice. Always searching for healing, hope, grace. At home in the role of wanderer until we one day cross the border into God’s not yet commonwealth.

That, perhaps, is the power of Gospel wisdom. Jesus’ followers can never stop seeking. Not until all of the hungry are fed and violence has been stopped and no one feels the sting of exclusion. Not until all have opened themselves to God’s love and are empowered to go out into the world and love others, freed from both arrogance and shame.

But Levertov’s poem says that we risk being too much at home in the role of wanderers.

Some are too much at home in the role of wanderer,
watcher, listener; who, by lamplit doors
that open only to another’s knock,
commune with shadows and are happier
with ghosts than living guests in a warm house.

Levertov

Sounds like a conundrum, doesn’t it? We are called to be justice-seeking wanderers. We are also called to be at home in God’s love. Whew!

I think God’s call to people of faith in the midst of this conundrum is to pray and work together to imagine and create home—welcoming, non-judging, nourishing—home-for-now for all people who are seeking after God’s resting places of justice, grace, and peace.

This is not easy work. It takes courage. And a whole lot of grace.

Called to be home-home

But the call remains. We are called to be home for those whose lives are broken. To be home for our communities’ strangers. To be home for those whose stories have left them isolated, alone, without hope. We are called to be home for now until all of us–wandering people that we are–finally can go “home-home.”

In the case of many amazing and prophetic women I have been blessed to know? They are at home in the role of preachers. Their home-home is in a pulpit. By saying “yes” to God’s call to be proclaimers of God’s justice, love and grace, they have embraced something central to their identity. And they have come home to themselves as Gospel proclaimers, justified by God.

Come home free

I am reminded of an old time version of a kids’ game—hide-and-seek. Maybe some of you remember the “song” that goes with the game? “Ollie, Ollie oxen frei.” This is what those who have been found sing out to the one who has been hiding the longest—to the one not yet found: “Ollie, Ollie oxen frei.”

An approximate rendering of the German phrase is this: The game is finished. All is forgiven. You can come home free.

We are all to varying degrees both Pharisee and tax collector. We are also neither tax collector nor Pharisee. We are human. We are exalted dust. And a God who never stops seeking for us calls us every day to come home to our most authentic selves–

I pray that we can remember and live this wisdom.

By God’s grace, let us be places where restless and yearning wanderers, found by God’s grace, can come home-home free.



While waiting for the dust to settle—

Dust tells a story.

“We are waiting for the dust to settle.”

This idiom is alive and well in many communities—congregations, institutions, families, neighborhoods. We live, I think, in betwixt and between times, experiencing all of the uncertainties that arise in the midst of transitions.

Many things are up in the air all around folks these days. Some people are in between jobs or discerning how to respond to tough questions about their lives. Others are in the midst of changes in their families. And others face bitter and painful realities of transitions caused by forces beyond their control.

As a divinity school professor and interim dean, I am reminded every day that theological education is in the midst of change as religious landscapes across the U.S. shift and as people from many different religious backgrounds redefine how they understand spirituality. The dust of religious identity in the U.S. is unsettled, and when dust is unsettled, it can be hard to get a clear view of the future.

I offer here a few words of hope in the midst of unsettled dust.

A dusty story of creative hope.

Dust tells a story. Dust tells our story as human beings created in God’s image.

The Genesis creation story depicts God forming human beings from dust–from humus, the soil of the earth. As a religious image in biblical and Christian liturgical traditions, dust is referred to as the stuff of which humans are made and stuff to which humans return upon death. I explored this image from a different perspective in an earlier post.

As I think today about unsettled dust, the biblical and religious images of dust and creation remind me that human beings are in their very physicality part of the earth and with that reality comes a responsibility for care for the earth and its communities. Dust, even the unsettled kind, fertilizes the future, if you will. We, as creatures of dust, are the soil in which the future is planted.

Called to authentic dusty-ness

The reality of unsettled dust also invites us to rethink the meaning of “humility.” This week’s Revised Common Lectionary text is Luke 18:9-14, the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector.

Much more can be said about this text and has been by biblical scholars and preachers (and will be said by yours truly in a sermon this Sunday at Sedgefield Presbyterian Church). For this post, the last phrases of the parable are striking to me:

“. . . for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Luke 18: 14

What do I hear in these phrases? Again, the word “humus” comes to mind. Humus, humanity, humility—all three words share a linguistic relationship and a theological one.

Authentic humility is about recognizing our dusty-ness and remembering that God breathes life into us each and every day. God also calls us each and every day fully to be our dusty selves and out of that earthy authenticity to love each other and care for all creation.

Waiting for the dust to settle

When we are betwixt and between, we are tempted to be impatient for the dust to settle, for things to get back to an imagined and mythic normal. The danger? We might settle those things in our lives or our communities that need to remain unsettled until justice can be done or until healing can occur.

Also, if we are honest, we have to admit that most of life and living happens betwixt and between. Perhaps if we embrace the ambiguity of human life and recommit ourselves to relying on God’s grace and mercy, we can begin to unsettle “settled certainties” that perpetuate oppression and injustice.

Life is never settled—not really. But the promise of God’s love for us is. Because of that, we are called never to settle down or settle in until all people can share in the good gifts of God’s justice and peace.

Dancing with dust

So, I offer a word of encouragement to those of us who find ourselves in a swirl of unsettled dust. Perhaps if we lean into the ambiguity of unsettling times we will hear God creating and calling. And perhaps, if we are willing to take the chance, we will learn to dance and swirl with unsettled dust and in doing so prepare the soil of our lives and communities in the belief that Gospel justice and peace beyond imagining await us in the days ahead.